Posted by: frroberts | March 17, 2015

Some thoughts on annulments

Being a priest can have a very negative impact one’s relationships with family and friends. The subject of religion is hard to avoid in conversations.  Annulments come up from time to time in this context and can be a particularly contentious subject.  One of the first things that I usually say is that there is no such thing as an annulment in the Catholic Church, but there is a declaration of nullity.  Why is that point an important one?

The Church does not have the power to dissolve a marital union between two baptized Christians who are male and female that has been consummated.  When Christ said, “Let no one separate what God has joined together,” Catholics believe that He was not just giving good advice for having a happy life but was referring to the fact that marriage is a life-long bond that God Himself creates such that a entering into second union while the first spouse is still living constitutes habitual adultery.

A declaration of nullity involves an investigation about whether or not a marriage had all of the necessary elements of a Christian marriage, like the intention and the capability of the spouses to be faithful to each other and to have children.  Sometimes one party lies about his or her intentions.  More frequently, one or both of the parties either have psychological problems or lack the reflective maturity necessary to make an adult commitment.

An objection usually comes up at this point about the status of the children of a first marriage were the Church to declare it null.  Would they then be considered illegitimate?  Trying to answer this question is something like trying to answer the question, “Is the color yellow shaped like a square or a circle?”  The 1983 Code of Canon Law does not classify children as legitimate or illegitimate.  Perhaps the question arises from a divorced person’s sense that they did the best they could in trying to make their first marriage work but sadly it did not.  For this mindset, saying that the marriage was not really a marriage because it did not work seems dishonest.

If a divorced person who makes this objection is willing to live alone until his death or his spouse’s death, there is no problem.  On the other hand, if a divorced person wants to enter into a second union without a declaration of nullity, a Christian runs into a serious problem.  Based on Jesus’ own words, words that overturned both the Jewish and Gentile morality of the day regarding divorce and remarriage, the person remarrying in such a case is entering into an habitual state of adultery.  And adultery finds a place very high on the New Testament lists of sins that if unrepented lead to eternal condemnation in hell.

Neither adultery nor the prospect of eternal loss make for pleasant coffee talk.

Before I was ordained, I used to think that the Church in the United States was too loose when it came to giving declarations of nullity.  My experience as a priest is that people are more wounded when they come into marriage than I could have ever imagined and that the majority of declarations of nullity are probably correct applications of the Church canons on the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.  My suspicion is that many people who object to “annulments” have deeper problems with the Catholic faith regarding Jesus, the New Testament and the Church.  Even more commonly, the person raising the objection feels reluctant about discussing some aspect of his private lives in front of an ecclesiastical tribunal.

Divorce, remarriage and declarations of nullity are sensitive points.  For a Christian who takes Jesus’ words and the practice of the early Church seriously, they will arise more frequently than we would like.


  1. Fr. Roberts,
    I wholeheartedly concur that people who enter into marriage today are more wounded than ever. Thank you so much for acknowledging that! These are sensitive subjects but we all must have much compassion for one another while trying to live according to the teaching of the Church.

    God bless,


  2. Fr. Roberts, both my husband and I received annulments of our first marriages before we were married in the Catholic Church. There were no children involved in either marriage, and one of us had a very brief marriage. I thought the process was thorough and appropriate and I was happy to go through it because my Catholic faith means a lot to me. Thank you for posting this.


  3. Dear Father,
    This topic hits very close to home and I ask your prayers for my parents and family:
    Growing up, my parents taught us that divorce was impossible & marriage was forever (til death). After almost 40 years married, they divorced (civilly). Now each one is living in open adultery & cohabitation (without civil remarriages); still attending Mass and receiving Communion.
    Alcohol, infidelity, pornography, sterilization, money, and mental illness were all contributing factors — and the wake of their “divorce” is spiritually devastating my family of origin.
    Thank you for writing about this painful subject. Please pray for all of us who are suffering with these deep family wounds.
    May God have mercy…
    With love & gratitude,
    a daughter


  4. Hi Father Christopher,
    I have gotten this question about annulments a lot over the years. I shared your link on my FB page for any of my FB friends who have asked. I always tell people that an annulment is NOT a Catholic divorce, as many commonly believe. People are usually surprised when they find out what an annulment really is. So thanks for writing on this topic.


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